|The New York Anglicans: Twenty Who Shaped the Twentieth Century
|In addition to being part of the pluralistic religious and civic culture of New York, Eleanor
Roosevelt’s settlement house work on Manhattan’s Lower East Side had introduced her to
survivors of Russia’s anti-Jewish pogroms. Her subsequent efforts to address lynchings in the
American South made her a central figure in race relations.
When her friend and Hudson River valley neighbor Mary Harriman (Rumsey) organized the
Junior League to create opportunities for meaningful community service among the young
women of New York’s high society, Eleanor was among the first to volunteer. Later as First
Lady of the United States, she would both shock and inspire the nation as she descended into
the coal mines of West Virginia to face the dangerous conditions that were part of daily life for
the coal miners and their families.
But by 1945, the war was over. Her husband was dead. And though she was besieged with
offers to run for office, head women’s colleges, or take on other high-profile jobs, it seemed to
her that the time might have come to settle into private life. Then came the call from President
Harry Truman, who asked her to play a starring role on the world stage. She would represent
the Unites States in the United Nations, going on to chair the UN Commission on Human
Rights, and overseeing the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
She later confided to the wife of her State Department adviser:
[Y]ou can never know how terribly frightened I was when I got on that ship
that night to go to London. I came to the ship alone and I was simply terrified.
I felt that I was going to do a job that I knew nothing about, I knew I did not
know anything about it….
From aboard the ship, she wrote those seemingly confident words about trusting in God to her
daughter, Anna. “Say prayers that I’m really useful on this job for I feel very inadequate,” she
By all accounts, Anna’s prayers were answered. In the view of Harvard Law professor Mary
Ann Glendon, Eleanor Roosevelt’s crowning achievement, the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights, “transformed the language and texture of international relations, gave legitimacy to anti-
colonial movements, inspired a new form of activism and helped bring down totalitarian
regimes.” It has become, she said, “the primary inspiration for most rights instruments in the
There is a passage in the Gospel according to Luke in which Jesus assures his disciples that, at
the moment of trial, he will give them “words and a wisdom” that none of their opponents will
be able to withstand or contradict (Luke 21:15, NRSV).
|[Y]ou can never know how
terribly frightened I was when I
got on that ship that night...
Another reason is that, although she never held elective office, she is primarily
understood as a political figure and thus falls victim to the cynicism directed toward
“politicians.” Religious affiliation or conviction is interpreted as political calculus in
this view. Finally, community organizations and governmental institutions, rather than
the church, were the primary vehicles through which she exercised her public
witness, making it relatively easy to lose site of her as a faithful—and rather typical—
Still, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt Roosevelt was baptized and buried from the church,
maintained lifelong parochial affiliations, and catechized her children (and servants, as
the 1892 American Book of Common Prayer urged). Equally important, she both
articulated and lived out a moral theology remarkably consistent with the ethical
precepts developed by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the Diocese
of New York, the various parishes with which she was affiliated, and the seminaries
that educated her pastors and teachers.
Assessing the extent to which Christianity generally, and Anglicanism specifically,
shaped her worldview requires more than a simple rehearsal of her tireless and often
dramatic efforts on behalf of social justice and human rights. An examination of her
political philosophy is also necessary.
In a 1940 essay, “The Moral Basis of Democracy,” she repeatedly asserted that a
“Christ-like” way of life was essential for democracy. She defined this Christ-like
Something along those lines seems to have happened to Eleanor Roosevelt as she learned to deal with the less-than-cooperative attitudes of her Soviet colleagues
and the initial hostility of the Republican members of her own delegation. The Lebanese philosopher and statesman, Charles Habib Malik, who succeeded her as
chair of the Human Rights Commission, took the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration to reflect on Mrs. Roosevelt’s role in its
President Roosevelt bequeathed to mankind the legacy of his Four Freedoms which we had at the back of our mind all the time. Through her
very name Mrs. Roosevelt imported this legacy into our council chambers. But she brought to her task as a leader and colleague much more
than this: she brought a distinguished personality, an outstanding charm and dignity, a deep personal concern for all conditions of men and for
all matters affecting human rights. These qualities were transparent in all her attitudes and statements, and they were contagious among our
ranks. Were it not for her leadership in those years…I doubt that our work would have been crowned with success as early as 1948.
Elliott Roosevelt dedicated his 1977 book, Mother R, to his parents with the words: “To F.D.R., a man of conviction, and A.E.R., a woman of faith.”
Many, including committed Episcopalians, will question the description of Eleanor Roosevelt as a woman of faith. Part of the reason is that she did not fit either of
the two most popular stereotypes about religious people. Neither the stern dogmatist nor the other-worldly naïf, she was known to have doubted the veracity of
certain dogmas and expressed apparent indifference to others. While such attitudes are fairly common among American Episcopalians, they are at variance with
popular assumptions born of America’s historical experience of militant Protestantism.
way as one which cultivated a sense of obligation to live with a deeper interest in the welfare of one’s neighbor. She said it was not necessary actually to be a
Christian but that it was necessary to acknowledge that the life of Christ was based on principles necessary for democracy. “The citizens of a democracy must
model themselves on the best and most unselfish life we have known in history. They may not all believe in Christ’s divinity, though many will, but his life is
important simply because it becomes a shining beacon of what success means.”
In other words, society does not have to be Christian, but it does have to be Christ-like. In articulating this view, she may not have realized how characteristically
Anglican it was. As a cradle Episcopalian, it was an understanding that had been articulated for her from her earliest memory. Indeed, the priest who baptized her
at Calvary Church, New York City, in 1885 was none other than Henry Yates Satterlee who would go on to develop Washington Cathedral as a “house of prayer
for all people”—a place of worship for the whole nation, Christian or not.
Famous as the legendary birthplace of Alcoholics Anonymous,
the parish’s mission projects included health and dental clinics,
fresh-air camps, trade schools, and the provision of fresh
water to tenements before public water was available.
Neither the notion of the church as public servant nor
Washington Cathedral as a case in point originated with
Satterlee. The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine
was founded with the same stated purpose for the City
of New York, reiterating the British Crown’s 1697 charge to Trinity Church, Wall Street, to take responsibility for the spiritual needs of all New Yorkers, Anglican
or not. Indeed, the concept is entirely consonant with the civic role of such Anglican outposts as Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral.
Satterlee’s Calvary was not the only place where young Eleanor was exposed to a theology of public servanthood. The Church of the Incarnation, Madison
Avenue, her home parish during her school years, was a center of advocacy for social justice and social tolerance in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries. When she lived on her own in Greenwich Village, she was known to worship at St. Luke-in-the-Fields, which included in its membership well-known
activists such as Anne O’Hagan Shinn, a charter member of the million-member Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, the organization often
credited with turning the tide in favor of repeal.
Little Eleanor was eight years old when the cornerstone was laid for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. She was twenty-three when her Uncle Teddy laid the
cornerstone for Washington Cathedral, yet it seems to require an Anglican eye to see the logic of why a little girl raised in a religious culture that valued public
service so highly might later emerge as “First Lady of the World.”
concerns task force of the national office of the Episcopal Church. William Thomas Manning, bishop of New York from 1921-1946, was a guest in the Roosevelt
home on more than one occasion, and throughout the White House years both Franklin and Eleanor maintained a lively (and sometimes testy) correspondence with
their assertive and opinionated bishop.
With ties to so many institutions that nurtured Christian witness in public life, it is not surprising that she assailed the tendency of many Americans to treat religion
as “something shut up in one compartment of their lives.” She said it was not the fault of the church because religious leaders had been trying for generations to
help Americans see that religion is meant to be a comprehensive way of life. Beyond her characteristically Anglican social theory, she also articulated a decidedly
sacramental theology, describing both day-to-day religious praxis as well as the church itself as outward and visible signs of a deeper truth.
But perhaps the most revealing insight into Eleanor Roosevelt’s spiritual life is found in the words of her nightly prayer. According to her son Elliott, every night
after a very full day’s work, his mother would slip into her old blue robe and kneel beside her bed and pray:
Our Father, who has set a restlessness in our hearts and made us all seekers after
that which we can never fully find, forbid us to be satisfied with what we make of life.
Draw us from base content and set our eyes on far-off goals. Keep us at tasks too hard
for us that we may be driven to thee for strength. Deliver us from fretfulness and
self-pitying; make us sure of the good we cannot see and of the hidden good in the
world. Open our eyes to simple beauty all around us and our hearts to the loveliness
men hide from us because we do not try to understand them. Save us from ourselves
and show us a vision of a world made new.
|Save us from ourselves and show us a vision of a world made new.
—From Eleanor Roosevelt's nightly prayer
|Inspecting the first printing of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.
|She had a better than average
understanding of the Episcopal
Church and what it stood for.
Mary Ann Glendon, the Harvard law professor, herself a prominent Catholic laywoman, drew from this prayer for the title of her 2001 book, A World Made New:
Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Again, it appears a prayer was answered, not just in the granting of the vision, but in several other
aspects as well. For example, if not by nature, then certainly in response to prayer, she became a restless seeker after truth, justice, and ultimately world peace. And
she never rested on her increasingly abundant laurels, actively contributing to public affairs right up until her death at the age of 78. At his graveside eulogy, the Rev.
Dr. Gordon Kidd, rector of St. James, Hyde Park, described her as a seeker who found a truth that made us all free.
Her prayer also echoes a sensibility that prefigures some of the liturgical changes incorporated into the 1979 American revision of the Book of Common Prayer, which
includes a prayer of thanksgiving with strikingly similar phraseology: “We thank you for setting us at tasks that demand our best efforts, and for leading us to
accomplishments which satisfy and delight us. We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.”
It also echoes the language of the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, who in asking that we be made instruments of God’s peace, prayed: “Grant that we may not so much
seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand…” The Prayer of St. Francis was said to be Mrs. Roosevelt’s favorite. A framed copy hung on
the wall of the bedroom of her cottage at Val-Kill, and it was was recited at her funeral.
In his 1957 memoir of his three decades as rector of New York’s famous Little Church Around the Corner, Dr. J.H. Randolph Ray said Eleanor Roosevelt “always had
the simplicity of manner which goes with large spirit.” He questioned how many people could bear the personal attacks and bitter insults of her critics with such dignity.
I think the nation as a whole has failed to realize her stature. She seems to be almost
completely without personal ambition, or self-seeking, yet she has contributed so much
to the cause of the United Nations that I think only history can estimate her value.
We might say the same of her religious convictions. According to Christian tradition, humility is one of the seven cardinal virtues. The very fact that she did not regard
herself as an exemplary Christian may well be the best evidence for the assertion that that is precisely what she was.
|Bibliography for Eleanor Roosevelt, The New York Anglicans
|The Anglican Examiner
Copyright by Donn Mitchell, 2010.
Ruby A. Black. Eleanor Roosevelt, A Biography. New York: Sloan and Pearce, 1940.
The Book of Common Prayer. New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979, p. 814.
Mary Ann Glendon. A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
New York: Random House, 2001.
Joseph Lash. Eleanor: The Years Alone. New York: Norton, 1972.
O. Frederick Nolde. Free and Equal. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1968.
J.H. Randolph Ray. My Little Church Around the Corner. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1957.
Elliott Roosevelt and James Brough. Mother R.: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Untold Story. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, c 1977.
Mary Simkhovitch, Personal Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA, Box 1, Folder 13.
While Eleanor Roosevelt may have lacked a nuanced understanding of the differences among the many
denominational expressions of American Christianity, her multiple parish ties and her marriage to an active
churchman gave her a better than average understanding of the Episcopal Church and what it stood for.
Additionally, her close involvement in her husband’s career invariably led to close engagement with church
leadership. FDR served on the vestry of St. James, Hyde Park, throughout his Presidency. Before that
time, he was chairman of the fund-raising campaign for the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, and
he had served on the boards of Seamen’s Church Institute, St. Stephen’s (now Bard) College, and a social
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